The pandemic associated with COVID-19 spread across the world quickly in early 2020. Governments responded with immediate policy actions on mobility and lockdowns, trade, and more, with no time to assess, study, or gather evidence on the potential impacts of those actions. Around the world, decisions were made based on available data and knowledge, often adapted from scenarios that varied significantly from the realities countries were suddenly facing.
As the pandemic unfolded, it was not possible to study policy implications before decisions were made. Nonetheless, we have begun to learn a great deal about the impacts of policy decisions in close to real time. On key development indicators ranging from food security to women’s empowerment to diet diversity, reality does not always match what many projected, or feared, would happen. Identifying and understanding the reasons for these outcomes can be of great use to countries as they prepare to “build back better.”
Several unexpected findings are detailed in a new paper on women’s empowerment, women’s employment outside their homes, and women’s diet diversity in Bangladesh. We drew upon a survey conducted in November 2019 by Feed the Future’s Bangladesh Nutrition Activity which interviewed women between the ages of 18 and 49 in two districts, using questions from the (pilot) project-level Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (pro-WEAI) nutrition and health module. In November 2020, nine months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh in early March, we called 832 of these women back to find out how things had changed. Of our 36 questions, 26 were also asked in the 2019 survey.
With these contacts and questions, we can consistently measure several aspects of women’s empowerment and diet diversity recall. We examined changes over the year, including nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic, in women’s employment outside their homes, involvement in food purchasing, autonomy over income use, and diet diversity. We controlled for changes in husband’s income when measuring changes in women’s empowerment, as well as for changes in household income when measuring women’s diet diversity. While these changes cannot necessarily be attributed to the pandemic, we knew the pandemic and associated lockdowns were occurring. There was an initial nationwide lockdown from March until May 2020, followed by regionally implemented lockdowns and restrictions responding to the local situation. From half April-May 2020 onwards, government and non-government aid programs were launched.
The data suggest that the expected impacts of the pandemic did not happen. Women’s employment status had not really changed among those who were already employed. Moreover, 12 percent who had not been employed found employment outside the home during the past year, while only three percent of those who had been working outside their homes lost their jobs. Though there was a small decline in women’s involvement in decision making around food purchases, there was no change in their autonomy regarding income use. Women’s diet diversity also improved, moving from consuming an average of four food groups per day to just over five. This change meant quite a few women who did not meet diet diversity recommendations before the pandemic are now achieving it.
We then measure the relationship between some of these changes. There is no evidence, for instance, that the decline in women’s involvement in decision making around food purchases is related to changes in women’s outside employment. We found that changes in women’s diet diversity are positively related with changes in women’s involvement in decision making around food purchases, which is somewhat remarkable as, overall, women’s involvement in decision making declined and women’s diet diversity improved. Unexpectedly, we found that changes in women’s autonomy in income use are negatively related to changes in employment, as well as to changes in diet diversity.
Unexpected findings beg the question, what caused the unexpected to happen? There’s a great deal that we don’t know, and that will require further study to understand. For example, 12 percent of women gaining employment outside the home was notable, to be sure, but we don’t know whether they were able to do so because they chose to, or because the family needed it. Why is a gain of employment associated with a reduction in women’s autonomy in income use?
Another unexpected finding was the improvement in diet diversity: reports early in the pandemic indicated a decline in food security, people skipping meals, and reduced consumption of more expensive foods, such as fruit, fish, and meat. Transport and mobility restrictions implied that fresh fruits and vegetables, among other perishable items, could not reach their intended markets and consumers. Yet studies in India, Ethiopia, and Kenya have gone on to find more limited changes in diet later in the pandemic, possibly explained by a reduction in non-food spending or the use of savings. In the context of rural Bangladesh, transport restrictions and false beliefs that poultry and eggs spread the coronavirus may have constrained selling some foods. The rural population may rather have consumed these foods which possibly partly explains better diets.
The pandemic came at a time when women, even those in rural areas, were slowly gaining empowerment in Bangladesh, and it is encouraging to see signs of that progress continue, at least in terms of outside employment and diets. What we don’t yet know is whether such progress will be sustained, or even be a catalyst for stronger and faster improvements. Will women who entered the workforce during the COVID-19 crisis continue to work outside the home after the emergency abates? Will stigmas associated with women working outside the home subside? Will rural families who ate a greater variety of foods because they couldn’t sell them recognize the health benefits, or prioritize other things and return to selling these commodities? On the other hand, there were also slight negative changes to women’s empowerment. Will these last or can they be turned around?
As we were at the beginning of the pandemic, we find ourselves with many outstanding questions. Like the pandemic itself, the situation is evolving, and we continue to learn as we go. The next wave of studies on COVID-19 and development impacts will need to explore why these changes happened and how progress can be sustained.
 See also Egger et al. 2021, Hamadami et al. 2021
Els Lecoutere is a Science Officer with the CGIAR GENDER Platform; she was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Development Economics Group at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) at the time this paper was written. Alan de Brauw is a Senior Research Fellow in the Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Marrit van den Berg is an Associate Professor in the Development Economics Group at WUR. Janet Hodur, Senior Communications Specialist with A4NH, contributed to writing this blog, which is based on the IFPRI Discussion Paper "Changes in Women's Empowerment in the Household, Women's Diet Diversity, and their Relationship Against the Background of COVID-19 in Southern Bangladesh."
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